Tuesday Fiction: “Deadly Quiet on the Western Front” by Fábio Fernandes
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Fábio Fernandes, an SFF writer living in São Paulo, Brazil. Fábio has several stories published in online venues in the US, the UK, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania, and Brazil. He also contributed to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s “Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded”, and has a story coming up soon in Lavie Tidhar’s “The Apex Book of World SF Vol. 2″.
This is the story’s first publication.
Deadly Quiet on the Western Front
“What did you do before the war?” asked the soldier in the trench.
“Was?” the corporal mumbled, distracted and disgruntled.
“What did you do before coming here, man?” the soldier asked again.
The corporal pretended he hadn’t heard the question. First, because the intimacy his subordinate showed him was very bothersome. And also, because he had more to do besides listening to the man babbling: binoculars in hand, he tried to look across the wasteland separating the two large areas of trenches. He couldn’t see a thing, and it was still light. When night fell upon that no man’s land, the hell of the bombs would torment them again.
“I was a painter,” he finally deigned to answer, still without looking at his brother-in-arms. But the soldier was gone.
So much the better. He wasn’t in the mood for idle chatter. And he needed the rest of the light to sketch.
He had almost added he had been a painter in Vienna. But that wasn’t important.
Unlike the other brothers-in-arms, the corporal wasn’t German but Austrian. Not that it mattered in the least: both countries shared the same language and practically the same culture.
The problem was in the practically.
Vienna was considered an enlightened capital, one of the greatest cultural centers of Europe, comparable to Paris. Its cafés and cabarets reunited the cream of the crop of the Viennese intelligentsia: poets, actors, musicians, painters.
All degenerate people.
The fact was, he didn’t like to talk to his fellow soldiers because of his temper. He couldn’t disguise his accent, typical of the suburbs of Vienna. The Wiener Vorstadtdialekt had always been a hurdle in life. More than a hurdle; a veritable curse.
The corporal was ashamed to be Austrian.
For him, Austria was a minor country. Germany was what really mattered, with its thousand-year culture, its powerful, vigorous music, its Germanic history, the Rheingold. How had Vienna contributed to the history of music, for instance? Mozart?
You didn’t want to get him started on Mozart. Little degenerate man. Confusing tunes. Too many notes. To him, Wagner was good. Yes, Wagner. Parsifal. Now that was music all right!
What about painting, then? Klimt, with his ill-proportioned women over geometric backgrounds with no meaning whatsoever? The paintings with biblical themes were passable, he conceded, but the final result, oh, the final result!
And what about Schiele? Who the hell was Egon Schiele, mein Gott? Painting sick women, syphilitic dancers, corpse-like whores, showing unashamedly their pudenda? Outrageous! And to think the little fellow had been accepted by the Akademie der Bildenden Künste!
The corporal’s application had been refused by the Akademie almost at the same time.
Not long ago – around 1906 – he had been selling his paintings in the cold streets of Vienna. Or at least trying to.
Nobody ever bought a single painting of his.
If the corporal had liked Van Gogh, he could have compared himself to the Dutch master. Not in quality or even technique, but in the fact that in years and years he never managed to sell a single painting.
But the truth was that he hated Van Gogh.
And all the Impressionists. Monet, Gauguin, Seurat. Especially Seurat! What kind of nonsense was that pointillism?
When the war was over, the corporal would follow the advice of the Direktor of the Akademie. He would be an architect. No modern art for him, thank you very much.
Alas, the new age didn’t seem to acknowledge the great painters of the last generation, like Feuerbach, Waldmüller, and Rudolf von Alt. Those men, the corporal thought, oh, they knew how to paint! The beautiful watercolors of von Alt, the living colors of Waldmüller, so realistic!
The corporal was a most realistic man. It was impossible to fight in a war and not be realistic, or at least so he thought. (The corporal was a most opinionated man.) He was well aware that he didn’t have an ounce of the talent of von Alt or Waldmüller. It doesn’t matter, he thought: destiny had other things in store for him. If he couldn’t be a painter, he would be an architect. And he would be an architect of great things.
But first things first. The thin shroud of light over the moonscape of Ypres offered to the corporal a phantasmagoria, something worthy of Gustave Doré. He thought Doré’s engravings for Don Quixote impressive works of art.
Using a tiny piece of charcoal, the corporal sketched. And planned for the future.
The corporal was, above all, an optimist.
If you happened to watch him from a distance, always serious and withdrawn, you certainly wouldn’t say that. But only an optimist would think everything would turn out right in the middle of an all-out war; the War to End All Wars.
(An optimist or a madman. But you couldn’t get caught saying that to his face, or he would go absolutely crazy. A raving lunatic, indeed.)
The corporal fulfilled his duties with the utmost seriousness. Maybe even beyond the call of duty.
Two years before, in October 1916, he had been wounded in France. Grenade shrapnel in his left leg during the Battle of the Somme. Nothing serious, but he was given a medal. He thought of refusing it – after all, it was his duty, nothing more – but you simply can’t shrug off a decoration from your fatherland.
They also gave him a bonus. He got a transfer to Germany and was stationed there for five months.
The worst five months of his life.
He had no family, no home to return to; he didn’t know what to do: it was the first time he had stayed away from the front in two years of war. His recovery was quick enough, but they insisted on an extended leave anyway. The corporal’s protests were useless. He was compelled to obey.
He spent part of that time visiting historical and architectural monuments in Berlin. And dreaming of, one day, himself being counted among the creators of such magnificent stuff. Sketching the Doric columns of the Brandenburg Gate and glimpsing the occasional dirigible transporting materiel – probably guns, and the new mechanical golems made by those Viennese steel manufacturers, the Wittgensteins – as near to the front as it dared.
Scheissköpfe, all of those Imperial Army Generals! How could they think that Jewish automata could replace real Menschen, real men like him?
As soon as he had fully recovered from his injuries, he was sent to Munich. To work in a supply division.
He almost had a hysterical fit. He was a man of action, not of idling around.
He had petitioned the War Office to return to the front as soon as possible. Now he was back in his true home, the List Regiment. Doing what he did best: running. The corporal acted as a messenger between the regimental staff and the outposts. It best suited his surly, solitary temperament.
Anyhow, the regiment was his home because he liked the pure, Spartan environment of the battle front. There he could revel in the hardships of the field, and the few moments of meditation and contemplation of the landscape.
That was more than he could ever have wanted. A fine home? A family? That he didn’t care for. Deep down, the corporal knew very well what his so-called brothers-in-arms thought of him.
No matter how hard he tried (and he tried very hard), he couldn’t disguise the fact that he was and would always be an Austrian. At the end of the day, in spite of being united by the same goal (temporarily, it was good to remember) – defeating France – the Germans never forgot their class system, a division similar to the complex network of castes in India, in the corporal’s opinion.
For the corporal, however, the entire situation only existed because of the degeneration brought about by that mixture. And the Jews were to blame for that.
The Jews were an ugly, impure people. They were a riff-raff of criminals and communists. The problem was that the German government did not turn away the Jews who wanted to fight for Germany on the battlefield. But that didn’t mean the corporal had to like them.
And he was quite sure that his Jewish superiors had barred his promotion to Sergeant First Class.
It doesn’t matter, he thought at meal time, eating bread and jelly, wiping the spatters with his hand to avoid smearing them even more over his uniform, already stained with mud and soot. To be a corporal was better. He didn’t want to be a leader. Not for now, at least.
One day, the war would be over. And, when that happened, he wanted to be part of the new order. Any little thing would do, since he would be able to help restore Germany to its position of prominence on the world scene. Deutschland über alles, he thought while eating his bread and jelly and petting the dog that rested at his feet.
He smiled, savoring the sweet irony. He despised any kind of intermingling of blood, but the dog was just a mongrel that had come from nowhere one day and had stayed by his side.
He called her Fox. She was a smart bitch, and could run almost as fast as he. A fine companion, she was. Better than his degenerate regiment colleagues.
The year 1917 was a particularly troublesome one for the List Regiment. Its members fought in the trenches on the French side of Flanders, in the Battle of Arras in the spring and in the Chemin des Dames in the fall. The corporal was one of the most vigorous fighters, and showed such a lack of restraint on the battlefield that he won even more medals.
That, of course, was of no consequence to the corporal. What he really wanted, in his heart of hearts, was to win the war. Only Germany triumphant would make him really happy, and free to realize his dream.
From time to time he received letters; never from his sister, with whom he had lost contact years before. One of his few correspondents was a painter who was also fighting in the War, Ernst Schmidt. In their letters, Schmidt and the corporal talked a lot about politics and the future of Germany. In their exchange, the corporal mentioned to Schmidt his recent interest in politics. After all, there were too many architects already. Of course, maybe he wouldn’t be able to give up architecture just like that; he needed to survive, natürlich, to earn his daily pumpernickel (something he had not always managed during his time as a painter in Vienna, and the memory of hunger still haunted him). But he would enter politics anyway, no matter what.
The corporal never gave up. He had the utmost contempt for several of his regimental colleagues. Not brothers-in-arms, no – he could never use such an expression, particularly for those who had families. Because those were the first to come up with reasons to be discharged from service, on the slightest pretext.
Not he, no. He had no family. And, even if he had, he wouldn’t give up his chance to fight for his country. His Heimat! No excuses for him, no sir. He would follow the call of duty to the bitter end.
The year 1918 was even better for Germany. In March, the Reich imposed on Russia the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and by April had virtually annihilated the Romanian defenses. The mechanical golems had been particularly helpful with that, even the corporal admitted (though grudgingly).
Things were so good that the List Regiment easily beat the Frenchmen in Montdidier-Noyon and, soon after that, in Soisson and Reims.
That was why nobody expected the mortar strike.
When the bomb exploded in his regiment’s tent, the corporal was leaving to get his dog, which stubbornly ran off around the trenches just at lunch time.
He was by the entrance to the tent when all hell broke loose. The last thought that crossed his mind was: I must punish that bitch, Scheisse!
Then he blacked out.
Only the first half of 1918 had been good for Germany.
The bloody battles, to which the soldiers gave themselves body and soul, were utterly destructive for the Army of the Reich. In early August, with insufficient soldiers and no food, which was even worse, the Germans in desperation stopped attacking. This gave the allied powers the chance to make a counter-strike.
So successful a counter-strike that, by the end of September, the German Chief-of-Staff, General Ludendorff, proposed an armistice, offering the surrender of Germany.
But not even Ludendorff knew the Germans’ ultra-secret weapon.
Gustav Noske did.
A member of the Sozial-Demokrat Partei, the German Social-Democratic party at the beginning of the century, Noske was a hardline military officer. Just before the War, he had become a member of the Reichstag, supporting a pact between Left and Right so that the country could face the harshness of war.
All bullshit, of course.
What Noske really wanted was power, whatever the cost. And power he got, with a new medical technique which went beyond the boundaries not only of imagination, but also of ethics and convention. After some political and corporate string-pulling, Noske created as early as 1917 a special group of fighters, the first military – and secret – force of the Deutsches Reich: the “Freikorps” (“freedom fighters”, or, in a more literal and less ironic translation, the “free bodies”).
The first group was a band of de-cerebrated soldiers. Literally de-cerebrated: only those brain-damaged and thus considered officially dead could be part of the Freikorps.
It was the first application of the Faust Auferstehung Methode on a large scale, outside research and development laboratories. If the French horse-eaters and the American doughboys were still fighting and resisting the mustard gas and even the mechanical golems – which were huge and sturdy machines, but, truth be told, very clumsy and prone to defects more often than not – nothing less than resurrected (and therefore unkillable) German soldiers could stop these Allies now.
But then, it was a dirty war.
At the cold chrome operating table, the German surgeons don’t stop to think: thinking is not their job; they are not there to think. Let others do that, while drinking Schnapps and eating Sauerkraut in the old, gay bars of München and Berlin. Long may they continue, is all one of the surgeons can think as he is stricken by a sudden desire to drink a large Glas Bier and look into the beautiful blue eyes of his fiancée, who waits for him in the Bavaria of his youth.
Not now, however. Now the doctor must concentrate and perform the surgery. It’s an experimental procedure, but one already performed successfully on animals. The next logical step, of course, was bound to be with humans, sooner or later – and war is always a good operating theater, a test tube, a Petri dish for the souls of men. These, naturally, are just metaphors: for the surgeons, there is no such thing as a soul. What does exist, however, is the mind. Without the mind, there is no life.
Therefore, the corporal who is on the operating table before them – he and several others caught by the shrapnel from the bomb that destroyed almost the whole of the List Regiment – is dead. And, if a soldier never usually has a say in anything, obliged to do whatever he is ordered, what then of a dead soldier?
A mere technicality. The soldier on the bed is not quite dead. His veins pulse; his heart pumps blood; his muscles react when stimulated by electrical impulses.
Only the brain remains dead.
But the body, ah, the body – is alive!
How strange is fate: if the corporal now being operated on on the cold chrome table had stayed inside the tent with the others, he would have been blasted into oblivion. Instant, utter, irretrievable death. On the other hand, had he taken just a few steps more, and distanced himself, say, eight, nine feet away, he would have had no more than a few burns, nothing serious, and would have been back on the battlefield in no time at all – or, with luck, could have obtained medical leave and a much deserved rest at home, where most certainly his loved ones would be eagerly waiting for him.
But that was not to be.
A piece of shrapnel penetrated the corporal’s frontal lobe, rendering him completely unconscious. He probably never even felt it.
Now there he was, his mind totally erased. The metal fragment had lobotomized the corporal’s brain.
The surgeon doesn’t think of what awaits the soldier if the surgery is successful. After all, things could always be worse. For one who loves and cherishes life, there is no fate worse than death.
The corporal doesn’t think any more. Thinking is not his job; he’s not there to think.
If asked, he won’t be able to answer. He can’t remember anything. Not even how to speak. For the corporal, everything is nebulous, everything is mist.
He has no other memory than the present moment, and the present moment is this: a tall, square-jawed man, yelling at him something he can’t understand.
The man points to him, and to others who, just like him, are sitting in folding chairs inside a tent, boards with faces painted on them. After some more yelling, the man opens a flap in the tent and shouts to someone outside. Other men bring another man inside, similar but different. The color of the mist surrounding him is different.
The corporal notices that the color of the man’s clothes is different from the color of the clothing that he and all the others are wearing.
The yelling man is still yelling. He gestures with his hand. The corporal doesn’t understand what the man wants. Until the man grabs a long, heavy thing with another thing pointy and shiny at its end, and shoves it into the corporal’s hands. He points to the man with the different color mist, and then to the pointy shiny thing now in the corporal’s hands. He begins to spear the belly of the different man with his fingers.
Then the corporal gets it.
He lunges forward and pushes the pointy shiny thing he’s carrying into the belly of the different man. The different man screams a thing that the corporal doesn’t understand. The corporal smells a very smelly smell. The different man falls to the ground.
The yelling man opens the flap again. He pulls the corporal by the sleeve of his jacket. Outside, a line of other yelling men forms a corridor that hurriedly pushes the corporal and the soldiers, everyone now carrying the same heavy things with the pointy shiny thing at the end. At the end of the corridor, a ladder. The man at the foot of the ladder shouts and points to the top, to whatever there is beyond the ladder.
It’s a small ladder. The corporal climbs its rungs with some difficulty because of the heavy thing in his arms, but he does well. And he gets to see what’s at the top of the ladder: a field of dead, dark earth. No plants, no sign of life.
But, in the distance, the corporal sees something.
Mists of a different color.
Now he knows what he must do.
Grenades and mortars fall all around, showering the corporal with black earth and body parts. The ones who don’t lose too much – an arm here, a leg there, half a torso gone but their heart still beating fine, an eye, ach, what is an eye after all? – keep on going inexorably.
Then, when the undead soldiers are close to the enemy trenches, the machine guns start spitting fire.
The corporal feels impacts on his legs, arms, shoulders, belly, face. He feels his body wet. He smells the same smelly smell of the different man when he stabbed him.
But nothing matters now. In fact, as soon as the corporal is reminded of these things, he forgets them.
The only thing that matters is the different colored mist. And what he was just taught to do to it.
Inside the tent, the sergeant in charge of the special attack group receives the report of the charge on the enemy trenches.
A total success. Every single Englishman killed.
On their side, no losses among the soldiers. That is, among the living ones of the second platoon.
Among the undead soldiers, as they are already beginning to be called by the superstitious and ignorant Army riff-raff, things are quite different.
Of the twenty-seven soldiers who served as guinea pigs for the experiment, nine got back to the German trenches unharmed. Twelve suffered considerable damage (loss of limbs, mostly), but the field doctors especially sent by the secret project guarantee that, after blood transfusions and replacement of the lost limbs with cheap prosthetic ones, they will be able to fight again in a couple of days with the same efficiency as they did today.
Six soldiers were deemed completely unrecoverable. Among them, the leader of the squad, the corporal wounded in the mortar bombing a few days earlier. The sergeant met him once: a bad-mouthed, bad-breathed fellow, who used to talk to himself. He had already seemed a lunatic even before the accident, Gott in Himmel!
But at least the son of a bitch had taken a lot of lives to hell with him. Judging by the report, Corporal Adolf Hitler was responsible for a veritable massacre in the enemy trenches before his body finally hit the ground.
Ach! the sergeant thinks to himself. War is war; one bastard more, one bastard less, what’s the fucking difference? A mediocre Scheisskopf like this Hitler would never have survived much longer anyway.
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